Three days before more than 1,500 demonstrators protested an upcoming opera they consider anti-Semitic, five Jewish leaders, representing a wide swath of the Jewish community, met privately with the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera to implore him to cancel the performance.
“I don’t think it went well,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, of their meeting with Peter Gelb.
“He was angry at us for daring to question his judgment. There was not an iota of retreat; he had made his decision before we arrived.”
At issue is the staging of “The Death of Klinghoffer,” John Adams’ contemporary opera about the brutal killing of Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old disabled Jewish American who was shot and killed in 1985 by four Palestinian hijackers while aboard the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. His body — still in its wheelchair — was then hurled into the sea.
Joining Rabbi Potasnik at the meeting were Malcolm Hoenlein, executive chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations; Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York; Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, and Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, president of the New York Board of Rabbis.
“He thinks this is one of the most creative operas of all time and he said he is honored to have it at the Met,” Rabbi Potasnik recalled of their conversation with Gelb. “He said he feels the composer is a genius and that this is an extraordinary opera. We all told him that he wouldn’t glorify ISIS or the 9/11 hijackers, so why would you do it for the killers of Klinghoffer? Throwing a man off a ship because he is a Jew is not an act of genius but an act of brutal anti-Semitism.”
What is significant about the meeting with Gelb is that it seems to move the Klinghoffer story beyond the right flank of the Jewish community, which has been beating the drums against the opera for several months, into the mainstream.
The Met’s decision to proceed with the production, which opens Oct. 20 for the first of eight performances, has received support from several individuals and organizations. On its website, the Met posted an editorial from The New York Times, which said that in proceeding with the production Gelb was “defending both the opera and the principle of artistic freedom in a world rife with political pressures.”
Rabbi Potasnik said the Jewish leaders told Gelb that this is “not about censorship but about choices — and choices have consequences.”
“He took the outrageous position that challenging this opera would increase anti-Semitism because it would appear that Jews were controlling the arts,” the rabbi recalled. “We said this opera is an affront not only to Jews but also to all decent people, especially those victimized by terrorists. Many 9/11 families have spoken against it. Given this mentality what’s next, an ISIS love story?”
A spokesman for Gelb said he was unavailable for an interview, but Gelb issued a statement saying the fact that the opera “grapples with the complexities of an unconscionable real-life act of violence does not mean it should not be performed.”
“The rumors and inaccuracies about the opera and its presentation at the Met are part of a campaign to have it suppressed,” he said. “‘Klinghoffer’ is neither anti-Semitic nor does it glorify terrorism. The Met will not bow to this pressure.
“As a cultural institution, we unwaveringly support the freedom of artists to create responsible work that addresses difficult contemporary topics. We firmly believe that artistic explorations of politically charged subjects should be presented to the public without fear of censorship.”
Gelb noted that the opera was planned five years ago and is a co-production with the English National Opera, which performed it without incident two years ago. And he said it has been presented to critical and public acclaim to audiences worldwide since its premiere 23 years ago.
“We stand behind the opera on its artistic merits,” he added.
Protests about the Met’s decision to stage the opera were initially tempered by a deal Gelb worked out with Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, in which it was agreed that the show would go on but that its live transmission to movie theaters worldwide would be canceled. Gelb explained at the time that although he believes the opera is not anti-Semitic, he became convinced that the “international Jewish community” believed its transmission “would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.” Foxman said at the time that, although he hadn’t seen the opera, he did not believe, based on the libretto, that it was anti-Semitic. As part of the agreement, the Klinghoffer daughters were offered an opportunity to write their own response to the opera for inclusion in the Met Playbill during each performance of the opera.
In their response, an advance copy of which was obtained by The Jewish Week, Lisa and Isla Klinghoffer noted that in the opera the terrorists who killed their father “are given a back story, an ‘explanation’ for their brutal act of terror and violence.”
“Terrorism cannot be rationalized,” they wrote. “It cannot be understood. It can never be tolerated as a vehicle for political expression or grievance. Unfortunately, ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ does all this, and sullies the memory of a fine, principled, sweet man in the process.”
They added that the opera “presents false moral equivalencies without context, and offers no real insight into the historical reality and the senseless murder of an American Jew. It rationalizes, romanticizes and legitimizes the terrorist murder of our father.”
Although at first protests against staging the opera came from smaller, right-wing Jewish groups, more and more mainstream Jewish organizations joined in. And some Christian groups, most notably the Catholic League, also joined the protest.
The JCRC issued a statement Monday saying it is “deeply disturbed by The Metropolitan Opera’s decision to move forward with the production” and it released an open letter to Gelb that it is asking people, synagogues and organizations sign.
The letter said it is “not surprising” that the decision to stage the opera has generated such “disappointment and negative reaction.”
“The opera’s juxtaposition of terrorists and their victims on the same moral plane is gravely inappropriate,” the letter states. “Moreover, this production runs the risk of legitimizing acts of terror, which is particularly sensitive now as anti-Jewish attacks and expressions of hatred against Jews have reached frightening levels around the globe, and innocent American journalists have been cruelly beheaded by radical Islamists.”
Among those who have thus far signed are the top lay and professional leaders of UJA-Federation of New York and the leaders of Hadassah, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Orthodox Union, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the National Council of Young Israel, the Religious Zionists of America, Jewish National Fund, several JCCs and YM-YWHAs, the Bnai Zion Foundation, New York Association of Jews from the Former Soviet Union, and the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County. So far no leaders have signed from the Union for Reform Judaism, by far the largest denomination.
The American Jewish Committee released its own statement last week expressing concern that the opera will glorify terrorism and noting that canceling the simulcast has not alleviated concerns in New York City, the site of the 9/11 terror attacks. Today with increasingly virulent anti-Western, anti-American, anti-Semitic and anti-Israel terrorism, all reminiscent of the cruelty perpetrated against Leon Klinghoffer, we should not rationalize or humanize acts of terrorism or terrorists, wrote David Harris the organization’s executive director. We must not desecrate the memory of terrorist victims, nor offer rationales, artistic or otherwise, that could be seen to justify or contextualize the targeting of civilians.
In a statement, Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel, said The Death of Klinghoffer is not an opera, it is an outrage.” He called it a show that glorifies terrorism and essentially downgrades the evil actions of the Palestinian-Arab terrorists, and said its production is wholly insensitive and beyond the pale… Giving a sympathetic platform to terrorism and calling it an opera is a reprehensible distortion of the arts and shows a callous disregard for the heinous execution of an innocent Jew.”
The JCRC said that on the opening night of the Klinghoffer opera it plans to screen a film at the JCC of Manhattan depicting the actual events surrounding the murder of Klinghoffer called, “Voyage of Terror: The Achille Lauro Affair.”
But one of those protesting outside the Met Monday evening, Eve Epstein, who described herself as a longtime opera fan and regular attendee (and who noted that she just received a postcard from the Met offering cut-rate, $25 tickets to the Klinghoffer production, something she’s never seen before), said she would prefer to see all Jewish groups join the opening night rally at the Met.
“They should be mobilizing as best they can for that main rally,” she said. “It will be a bigger protest. What you saw Monday was just a dress rehearsal.”